What Ukrainians think: are there Russian troops in Ukraine?

There are Russian troops in Ukraine.

Here. Here. Here. And here.

This shouldn’t be a remotely controversial statement anymore.

But just over one in ten Ukrainians say they don’t think there are. One in five aren’t sure.

I’ve been digging again into data from the most recent Omnibus Survey run by Kiev International Institute of Sociology, where they asked (KIIS’s translation from the Ukrainian and Russian versions of the questionnaire):

What do you think, are there Russian troops in Ukraine now?”

Almost two-thirds (65%) of Ukrainians said yes – they think there are Russian troops in Ukraine. But just over one in ten (13%) said there weren’t, and 22% (i.e., one in five) said they weren’t sure.

The first go-to breakdown for pretty much any survey in Ukraine – the regional breakdown – doesn’t seem that surprising on its face, as 35% of people in eastern Ukraine said there weren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.

Dig a bit further though and there’s a lot more to this 35% figure than the oversimplified east-versus-west/’pro-Russia/pro-western’ business.

The curious case of what people in the “DNR” think

In Donetsk oblast, KIIS’ interviewers managed to talk to people in both the government-controlled part of the oblast and the “DNR.”

When it comes to the ‘are there Russian troops?’ question, the numbers are pretty striking.

What do you think, are there Russian troops in Ukraine now? Donetsk oblast, UA-controlled “DNR”
Yes 42% 7%
No 19% 78%
Difficult to say 39% 15%

Yes, people in the “DNR” – you know, that the part of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed forces and with clear evidence of a Russian military presence – seem to be quite insistent that there aren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.

Of course, if you’re asked a series of questions by a stranger in a militarily-occupied internationally-unrecognized fiefdom rife with human rights abuses, you might think it’s best to toe the line and say what the men with the guns in charge would want you to say, even if you know damn well what the right answer is.

What about the one in five who aren’t sure?

Keep in mind the one-in-five figure is for the overall population of Ukraine (excluding Crimea). In eastern Ukraine, 36% of people say they aren’t sure whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine, about the same as those who insist there aren’t any. In the part of Donetsk oblast still controlled by the Ukrainian government, 39% people aren’t sure.

I really doubt most of these people are that unsure.

First, I suspect there’s a hell of a lot of social desirability bias going on here – that is, people believing there’s Russian troops in Ukraine but being too scared to say so or admit it. I honestly can’t say I blame them.

Secondly, some of these people are probably experiencing some wicked cognitive dissonance. Some of these people have to know there’s Russian troops in Ukraine, but they can’t or won’t reconcile that with their own ‘pro-Russian’ views or what they’re being fed from Russian propaganda. In that case, it’s easier to cop out with a ‘gee, I don’t know.’

But others, I think, are diving down an epistemological rabbit hole, where they say they don’t know because they can never really ‘know’ for sure whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine. Ironically, this is exactly what I heard from someone back in Canada when I showed them this question from the survey. They innocently asked something like “well, how can people know that for sure?”

This kind of thinking is a total cop out. I mean, I don’t know ‘for sure’ that the earth is round because I’ve never seen it from space. Still, I’m reasonably certain it is round, and challenging me with a conspiracist “how do you know for sure?” line isn’t going to make me change that. I say that I know this because there’s a lot of logically consistent evidence pointing to it, whether I’ve personally seen it or not, and the argument against it has even less evidence and logical consistency behind it.

This kind of “you can’t know for sure” denialism couched as skepticism (“Question More,” anybody?) is just another way to deny the existence of any sort of truth(s) and to get away with saying things that are plainly, obviously and demonstrably wrong. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, you don’t need to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.